Forging On: In-Person Family Treatment Courts For Recovery, Foster Care Crisis Go Remote

May 7, 2020

Only eight months after launching West Virginia’s first family treatment court, Boone County Judge William Thompson said the coronavirus pandemic caused some drastic changes to the program.

Family treatment court is a “problem solving court.” Instead of punishing parents in the abuse and neglect system for their addiction, it connects them to treatment options and resources to improve their parenting.

The goal, Thompson said, is to help parents reach recovery and get their kids back. As parents progress through the program, which consists of weekly meetings with himself and daily contact with a county case coordinator, they get more visits with their kids, until they’re ready for reunification. 

Boone County had reunited its first family and was almost ready to reunite others, when COVID-19 hit West Virginia, causing the state to end most in-person court hearings and visitations for families with children in foster care. 

“We had one young mother today who's doing wonderful in the program and is at the point to be considered for reunification,” Thompson recalled from one of his weekly meetings, which he now conducts over phone and video conferencing. “And probably, but for the coronavirus, she would have had her child back with her at this point.”

In one meeting, the mother talked about learning her child had crawled for the first time.

“You could tell that for the mother, it was great that the baby crawled,” Thompson said, “but you could also tell it was breaking her heart that she didn't get to see it.” 

Hearing From The First Court

Thompson’s court was the first of five to launch family treatment court in West Virginia. 

Advocates for the program say it could reduce the number of children in the state’s overwhelmed foster care system, who often are removed from their homes due to issues related to substance use disorder. 

The programs were showing promising results, but now that the coronavirus crisis has restricted in-person gatherings, these five courts and their participants have been forced to adapt quickly. Inpatient treatment options are limited, and most outpatient appointments have moved to telehealth.

“While not perfect, and not ideal, we are doing the best we can in these circumstances,” said Thompson.

West Virginia Public Broadcasting visited the Boone County Courthouse in August, before the first family treatment court in the state was launched.
Credit Emily Allen / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

On March 20, the state Department of Health and Human Resources began advising virtual visits instead of physical visits, for families involved with Child Protective Services. Many parents with children in foster care haven’t been able to see their kids since then.

Some families whose children are in kinship placement, either with a family member or family friend, have been allowed some visits with the court’s permission.

The West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals issued an order on March 22 declaring a judicial emergency, which halted all nonessential, in-person hearings until May 15. The supreme court issued another order on Wednesday, allowing in-person hearings to resume on or after Monday, May 18.  

Parents, Kids Face Digital Divide

In normal circumstances, family treatment court functions best when parents can maintain regular visits with their kids. According to Chautle Haught, who leads family treatment courts for the state supreme court, the strength of this program hinges on developing healthier, more nurturing relationships. 

“We require these participants to be involved,” Haught said. “We want them at every doctor’s appointment, every school function. We want them present in their childrens’ lives, as much as they can, as long as there’s no safety concerns.”

She compared family treatment court to other problem-solving programs, like the adult and juvenile drug courts that already are active in West Virginia, helping people avoid incarceration for addiction-related crimes.

“The difference with us is that our courts are involved in the civil proceedings, not the criminal proceedings that your adult drug courts and juvenile drug courts are,” Haught said. Instead of jail or prison time, she said, parents in family treatment court risk losing custody of their children. 

Even in a pandemic, Haught said parents have made excellent progress in their recovery from addiction.

With school events and appointments on hold, courts are increasing the number of video visits parents have with kids.

“We're doing lots of telephone visits, we’ve got some of our foster parents equipped with the same type of technology for Zoom and Skype platforms,” said Judge Thompson in Boone County. “But that's been by far the most difficult part. I have a participant who’s doing everything they're supposed to be doing. And I can't get them the in-person physical visits that they deserve.”

Roane County Judge Anita Harold Ashley, who launched her family treatment court in January, agreed her four participating families struggle the most with not seeing their kids —  especially since many Roane County residents have a hard time regularly tuning into video calls, due to unreliable broadband access. 

“With the fact that there's really poor internet service, and most folks have bad cell service, it just breaks my heart if they're not seeing their kids,” Ashley said. 

An Inconvenient Time For A Global Pandemic

These challenges come just as family treatment courts were starting to show some promising results. The supreme court reports there are 50 adults involved in Boone, Nicholas, Ohio, Randolph and Roane counties, with roughly 100 to 150 children between them.

Boone County has 16 adult participants and roughly 25 children involved. 

Other, newer courts have said they hope to have the same success. Like Nicholas County, which was the fifth in the state to launch a family treatment court in late February.  

Stephanie Smith is the Nicholas County family treatment court case coordinator. Like Boone and Roane counties, she said the Nicholas County program is different now than the one they planned for earlier this year. 

“We'll be excited when we can safely get back to doing things like normal,” Smith said. “But until then, we're just chugging along and everybody's hanging in there, making it work right now.”

Smith still conducts home visits with adult participants every week. Sometimes, she brings others from the family treatment court team with her. 

“I talk to them [the participants] every day, multiple times a day, phone calls, text, whatever,” Smith said of the parents. “When I went out there, I mean, you could just tell that they really enjoyed that face to face contact … It really made a difference.”

Recovery ‘Difficult Enough’ In Normal Time, Challenging During COVID-19

Most of the resources parents are connected to — namely, those for addiction treatment and parenting skills — have moved online or become remote. Sweat patches that last two weeks have replaced regular drug testing, for example.

When the patches need to be changed in Nicholas County, the participants can visit the local Day Report center, which is still open to those in family treatment court and the criminal justice system, dealing with addiction. 

“It’s difficult enough when it’s a normal time, trying to keep people sober and making sure they don’t OD [overdose] or anything like that,” said Nicholas County Day Report Center Director Gary Jarrell. 

Individuals reporting to the center who are involved with the criminal justice system check in on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, Jarrell said.

For them and family treatment court participants, the center has a recovery specialist on staff, who holds video meetings every week. 

For those who need intensive inpatient care, Haught at the state supreme court said she’s in touch with probation services and their connections throughout the state.

The situation isn’t perfect, but there’s still evidence that families are benefiting from this program, according to Ohio County Family Treatment Court Coordinator Erin Jordan. 

“There are some things that may not quite be able to happen,” Jordan said. “But they're still going through their milestones. Some people have still advanced during all of this.”

Judge William Thompson sits behind his desk in August.
Credit Emily Allen / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

In Boone County, Thompson noted parents are opening up more, and supporting each other in their weekly calls. 

“They have sort of formed their own support system where they'll depend on one another,” Thompson said. “It's a stressful time, but they understand each other.” 

Ohio County has even found a way to make family calls work, Jordan said, using money from grants that went to the five pilot counties, to support participants and provide incentives for their recoveries.

“We've ordered books, one for the child, one for the parent,” she said. “That way, with a video chat, the parents can read the book and the child can have the same book in their hands, looking at the pictures at the same time.” 

Emily Allen is a Report for America corps member.